PRINT November 1975

Altman in Music City

IN A LEAN YEAR FOR movies, Robert Altman’s Nashville—a rich, tart slice of Americana—has perhaps inevitably been somewhat overrated. Critics have called Nashville the best American movie since Citizen Kane, and Pauline Kael even compared it to Joyce’s Ulysses. The film deserves much of its acclaim, but these inflated comparisons only get in the way of a more rigorous analysis of Altman’s achievement.

Since his first critical and commercial success, M∗A∗S∗H, Altman has made eight movies, remarkably uneven, sometimes (as in the case of Images) disastrously misconceived, but always enterprising and unpredictable. He is just about the only American director who consistently takes chances, and if the critics have sometimes overlooked the failures of these movies in their eagerness to encourage Altman’s experimentation, their enthusiasm is understandable. By now Altman has exploded and reinvented most of the established genres: the service comedy (M∗A∗S∗H), the Western (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), the private-eye melodrama (The Long Goodbye), the Depression gangster film (Thieves Like Us). Nashville, which features approximately 25 songs, is Altman’s country-western musical, but it is unlike any other musical ever made.

Disregarding the rules of conventional narrative movies, Altman draws us into worlds that look familiar but turn out to be full of surprises. The electricity of his films comes from his extraordinary work with actors. Altman is perhaps the most successful practitioner of improvisation in films. He sees filmmaking as an organic process, almost as if he were discovering the movie while shooting it. His approach has been compared to action painting, and to jazz. Pauline Kael, Altman’s most passionate champion, wrote in her review of Thieves Like Us, “When an artist works right on the edge of his unconscious, like Altman, not asking himself why he’s doing what he’s doing but trusting to instinct . . . a movie is a special kind of gamble.” Altman himself has said, “A director can have either an intellectual or emotional approach to filming . . . If you feel the scenes and try to sense what’s right or wrong without explanations, the audience will respond emotionally. That’s what I’m working for.”

Critics love Altman’s unfinished, suggestive films because they are free to read profound, arcane meanings into almost every trivial scene. Altman once said of M∗A∗S∗H, “You can call it a million things. And it’s all of those things.” He wants the viewer to be a collaborator in his films, but sometimes the experience of watching one is like taking a Rorschach test; any interpretation is possible because Altman hasn’t thought out his own responses to the material. If Altman’s films at their best are evocative and unresolved, at their worst they are muddy and unformulated.

Nashville offers a concentrated indication of Altman’s strengths and weaknesses. Not many films have been as successful at capturing the spirit of a city. As the stars, the promoters, the hangers-on and the dreamers in Nashville cross paths over a five-day period, we adjust to the raucous, discordant rhythm of the country music capital of the world. Altman uses purely cinematic means to create his vision of a cacophonous modern city. One technique is his multilayered soundtrack, which gives the sense of lives going on simultaneously: during a traffic jam a dozen conversations are punctuated by the blaring of horns and the droning of a loudspeaker with a recorded political message. The inter-cutting in this scene and others is smooth and supple. Altman also tries to pack every frame with as much detail as possible; during the traffic jam, or in the opening scenes in a recording studio, there is more activity than we can absorb all at once. Unfortunately, some of the images are too crudely symbolic—a parade of majorettes carrying muskets, a giant closeup of an American flag, an automobile graveyard, a school-bus depot. The photography by Paul Lohmann (a poor substitute for Altman’s former cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond) is generally inferior to the complex editing and sound recording, though the bold, garish primary colors help to underscore the red-white-and-blue pieties of Nashville.

Inevitably a 2 1/2-hour movie with 24 major characters will not be able to treat most of them in depth. If one wants to search for literary comparisons, the appropriate counterpart to Nashville is not Ulysses, but an 18th-century panoramic novel like Tom Jones, notable for the breadth of its portrait of an entire society, rather than for its psychological depth. Still, with one or two of the characters, Altman does achieve penetrating psychological insight. The character of the vulnerable, neurotic singer Barbara Jean is astutely drawn, and beautifully played by Ronee Blakley. Altman never presumes to psychoanalyze the character; he provides only a few oblique hints of what has driven Barbara Jean to the point of collapse. Yet the portrait is unusually suggestive. In one tense quarrel with her manager husband, we see her chafing under the pressure of maintaining the fragile, doll-wife image that has come to seem increasingly hollow. Ronee Blakley creates an unforgettable study of a primitive artist in the process of disintegration.

On the other hand, Altman and his writer Joan Tewkesbury have less success with the character of Linnea, the gospel-singing wife of a hustling Nashville lawyer and mother of two deaf children. Lily Tomlin gives a subtle, haunting performance, but no actress can supply a character that has not been properly conceived. Linnea’s aspirations and frustrations are never clearly defined. In the scene that might have been most revealing—a bedroom conversation between Linnea and Tom, the studlike rock singer with whom she has a brief affair—Altman settles for a bit of empty sentimentality: Linnea shows Tom how to say “I love you” in sign language. At the moment when we expect to learn more about Linnea’s dissatisfactions, and about the significance of this liaison for both her and Tom, the film is unfortunately mute. Commenting on this scene, Pauline Kael remarks that Tom will remember Linnea forever; but Kael is imagining a romantic drama that Altman has not managed to create.

Luckily this scene is not typical of Nashville. The advantage of Nashville over most of Altman’s other movies is that, for all of the improvisation, it is carefully, thoughtfully structured and controlled. The skill with which Joan Tewkesbury’s script intertwines a dozen separate stories and two dozen characters demonstrates a good deal of forethought. Her script is a richly textured tapestry, with recurring motifs that complement and illuminate each other. For example, the parallel and contrast between the rival singers Barbara Jean and Connie White (Karen Black) is provocative; the comparison enables us to see two different responses to the pressures of stardom in Nashville. Both of the stars wear a finely chiseled mask of cheerful serenity that conceals their real feelings. For Connie the strain of maintaining that smiling facade has hardened her, and turned her into a self-centered gorgon who secretly despises her fans. For the more sensitive and magnanimous Barbara Jean, the same pressures have been internalized and are tearing her apart. She can no longer reconcile her inner feelings with her public persona.

The film is full of incisive, revealing contrasts like this. In fact, the gallery of women characters in Nashville is the most varied in any American film of recent years: from the tormented folk artist Barbara Jean to the more domesticated but equally dissatisfied Linnea; from the calculating, bitchy Connie White to the naive, lascivious waitress Sueleen Gay; from the wacky but unexpectedly talented Albuquerque to the super-sophisticated, radical chic Opal, the reporter from the BBC. (Geraldine Chaplin’s sharp comic performance as Opal is one of the delightful surprises of the film.) At a time when women have almost disappeared from American movies, Altman and Tewkesbury have triumphantly revived an endangered species.

Along with these vivid characterizations, Nashville has a thematic unity that many of Altman’s films lack. Nashville is an impressionistic but probing film about urban life—a study of the variety of ways in which our lives are affected by people we barely know. But whereas a film like George Lucas’s American Graffiti—a chronicle of a dozen accidental meetings among a group of teenagers in a California town one summer’s night—celebrates the magic of chance encounters, Altman is much more pessimistic.

Characteristic of the chance encounters in the film is the relationship of the young soldier who worships Barbara Jean, and Mr. Green, an old man whose wife is dying of cancer in the same hospital where Barbara Jean is recuperating from a nervous collapse. They talk on two separate occasions. The first time, during a Sunday morning church service in the hospital, Mr. Green interrupts the soldier’s reverie by talking about his own son, killed in World War II; the soldier, hypnotized by Barbara Jean, is irritated by the distraction and barely hears Green’s personal confession. But the next day, the sullen, withdrawn soldier suddenly opens up for the first—and only—time in the film, and tells Green the reasons for his obsession with Barbara Jean. The soldier does not know that Green has just been informed of his wife’s death; this time it is Green who is not listening. They meet briefly; each reveals some of his most intimate feelings, but they never really make contact.

All of the chance meetings and most of the long-term relationships in the film are marked by the same failure of communication. The marriages that we see are all hollow or disintegrating: Delbert listens impatiently while Linnea talks to their deaf son in sign language, which Delbert has never bothered to learn; Barbara Jean and her manager-husband Barnett feed on each other parasitically; Bill and Mary, the married members of a rock trio, both have affairs on the side. The sexual encounters are equally superficial. LA Joan, the groupie who latches on to six different men during the five days covered in the film, illustrates the coldly impersonal liaisons in Nashville. Even the affair of Tom and Linnea is cut off before it develops into a relationship.

There is a paradox in Nashville: The community as a whole bursts with life, but the individual relationships are without exception cold, exploitative, strangled and empty. This same paradox operates in all of Altman’s films. The most exuberant comic moments are the scenes of group activity: the football game in M∗A∗S∗H, the whorehouse birthday party in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the family dinner and rehearsal bank robbery in Thieves Like Us. Yet there are very few meaningful friendships or love affairs in his films. All of his heroes are very much alone; it is virtually impossible for two people in an Altman movie to establish a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. In The Long Goodbye Philip Marlowe is betrayed by his best friend; McCabe and Mrs. Miller never quite come together—she is lost in an opium swoon while he is lying dead in the snow; the two friendly gamblers in California Split separate without ever understanding each other. Altman wants to believe in the possibility of community, but his vision of human relationships is bleak and forlorn. In Nashville this dark vision is eloquently communicated, shadowing the ebullient comedy that colors the surface.

The film also succeeds as a satiric exposé of the country-music business. Altman stresses the insecurities, petty jealousies, egomania and hypocrisy of the stars, the cold-blooded determination of the people who promote and exploit them, the brutality and desperation of the fans and groupies who hunger for a piece of the pie. When the fans at Opry Belle turn on their idol, Barbara Jean, and jeer at her nervous breakdown, the film becomes Day of the Locust in Nashville. Like Hollywood in the ’30s, contemporary Nashville is a ruthless industry that betrays all the wholesome values peddled in the country-western songs.

Yet Altman is not totally cynical about the music itself. No matter how corrupt or posturing these people are offstage, they do express something genuine when they sing. This can be something as simple as the nakedly sexual waitress Sueleen singing her own composition, “I Never Get Enough.” Or the connection between life and art can be much deeper, as when Barbara Jean sings “Dues,” an agonizing lament that reflects her disillusionment with her marriage. For the strutting king of Nashville, Haven Hamilton (superbly played by Henry Gibson), the only honest emotion he expresses is when he sings his theme song, “Keep A’ Goin’”—a celebration of his energy and endurance.

In most musical films the songs are merely colorful “production numbers.” In Nashville they are absolutely integral; they simultaneously define the social milieu and reveal the characters’ inner feelings. The only moment when the rock singer Mary comes alive is when she sings a melancholy ballad called “Since You’ve Gone”; she imbues it with an intense bitterness that is more passionate than anything she has been able to express verbally. And when the vain, shallow stud Tom sings “I’m Easy”—a self-portrait and a love song that four women in the club take as a personal message—we suddenly see him in a new light. Up to that moment he has seemed simply narcissistic and insensitive; in the song, which is a self-conscious romanticization of his free-living style, his hedonism is momentarily transformed into a poetic affirmation of honesty and rebellion. The song does not cancel out our earlier impression of Tom, but it complicates that impression by suggesting that he has more mysterious reserves of feeling than we would have guessed.

In addition to his dissection of the music business, Altman attempts a political commentary in Nashville. The film is set in 1976, and an invisible but important character is the Presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker, leader of a new political party, the Replacement Party. Throughout the film excerpts from his campaign speeches emanate from loudspeakers on a truck that rides up and down the streets of Nashville. Altman wants to underscore the connection between politics and show business: Hal Phillip Walker is like an entertainer, lining up a star-studded show to aid his campaign, tailoring his image for the broadest possible audience. At the same time, a power-hungry star like Haven Hamilton (who is promised support for a governorship if he backs Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign) thinks of himself almost as a political leader, spouting patriotic platitudes to please his fans. Altman etches an acerbic portrait of Walker’s campaign manager—a smoothie named John Triplette who is in Nashville arranging talent for a political rally. In observing how political promoters manipulate the media to sell their candidates, and cajole popular entertainers into aiding the campaign, the film captures the essence of politics in the ’70s.

Although the character of Triplette is masterfully drawn, the political portion of the movie is not entirely satisfying. Altman’s parody of the rhetoric of a Wallace-like third party candidate is superficially funny but basically off target. Apparently representing some kind of fundamentalist philosophy (his campaign slogan is “New Roots for the Nation”), Walker advocates taxing churches, removing all lawyers from Congress, eliminating farm subsidies, rewriting the national anthem, and abolishing the electoral college. His views sound like a mixture of conservatism, grass roots populism, Southern liberalism, and sheer insanity. Maybe the point is that politicians try to appeal to all possible constituencies, but it is difficult to connect Walker with any recognizable political position. Essentially Altman’s Replacement Party is a joke on all political parties, and although many Americans battered by Watergate may respond to the joke, that is not the same thing as intelligent political satire.

These political evasions lead to the muddled, volatile ending. At the climactic political rally at Nashville’s Parthenon, a young, clean-cut boy who has been hanging around the concerts suddenly pulls out a pistol and fires on Barbara Jean. This abrupt outburst of violence has a strong impact, but the emotions are not really earned. It is easy to get a response by unexpectedly killing off an appealing character, but the response is a cheap one, not worthy of an artist of Altman’s stature. This climax raises a great many questions. We don’t even know for certain whether the assassin was planning to kill the candidate but freaked out and shot Barbara Jean by mistake, or whether he actually intended to kill Barbara Jean all along. Kenny’s motives are impossible to decipher. Is he jealous of Barbara Jean’s stardom, like the army of fans who mob her? Is he out to make a name for himself in the only way open to him? Is he protesting Hal Phillip Walker’s platform and Barbara Jean’s implicit endorsement of the candidate? Or does Barbara Jean’s song about family life stir Kenny’s latent hostility toward his own family? (One pregnant telephone scene earlier in the film discloses that he has a domineering mother.) Any explanation is possible; Altman practically gloats over the ambiguity.

Altman’s films all contain acts of random, wanton violence, and his shock endings can be seen as part of an absurdist vision of a world where nothing really makes sense. They can also be seen as facile tricks, engineered by a director who values instant impact, not insight. The ending might have worked if Nashville had more consistently and coherently emphasized the latent violence in the country-music world. But the ending does not grow out of the rest of the film; it is tacked on to add last-minute significance. Altman may think he is making a profound statement about the senseless violence in America, but to say that violence is absurd and meaningless is actually the most obvious point that can be made. Altman relies on a pop cliché in place of serious exploration of the meaning of individual acts of violence in America. Here, his intellectual slovenliness disqualifies him as a social critic.

Because Altman hasn’t thought about the implications of the ending, it reveals more than he may have realized. It is possible that Altman identifies too closely with Barbara Jean—the one authentic artist in the movie—and her murder may express his own fantasy of martyrdom. Does Altman see himself as some kind of unappreciated prophet sacrificed to the philistines? One cannot help asking questions like these, because the emotions generated by the ending are completely out of control.

Some viewers may be able to accept the ending on a purely intuitive level; they will respond to the emotion without bothering to ask what it all means. These are people who want movies to provide a “trip,” an experience that will simply “wash over them” (in Altman’s own words). They will argue that real-life violence often is incomprehensible, and so Nashville’s senseless violent ending only reflects the chaos and insanity of the real world.

This raises a fundamental question about the role of art; I believe art can have a clarity that life lacks. This does not mean a work of art should present a neat, simplistic theoretical explanation of human behavior; but art was meant to provide perception, understanding, illumination as well as emotional intensity. Altman’s reliance on randomness and meaninglessness is a sign of laziness, not wisdom.

However, the murder at the Parthenon is not quite the end of Nashville. From this violent climax the film takes an unexpected turn and moves beyond politics to a strangely moving and mysterious finale. As the dead Barbara Jean is carried offstage, the microphone is handed to Albuquerque, the slatternly runaway housewife who has been sneaking into clubs and concert halls waiting for her break. The fact that her opportunity arises out of an unexpected tragedy is a black comic surprise. But there is a richer joke to come: she can sing. She begins nervously at first, but gains confidence, and gradually mesmerizes the shocked crowd. In a few moments the spectators have forgotten Barbara Jean and are singing along with the new star.

This ending stirs deeply conflicting emotions. In a way it recalls the ending of McCabe and Mrs. Miller: As McCabe lies dying in the snow, the townspeople are working together for the first time to put out a fire in the church; McCabe’s death coincides with the rebirth of the community. Altman’s sympathy is with the individuals destroyed, and he sadly observes that the community cannot absorb the maverick, the outlaw, the poet. At the same time, he acknowledges the resilience of the community. In the earlier parts of Nashville, the mob has been presented as cold and unfeeling—when the men at the smoker leer at Sueleen’s striptease, or when the spectators at Opry Belle boo Barbara Jean because she is too sick to finish her concert. But at the end our response to the mob is more ambivalent.

On the one hand, there is something frightening about the speed with which the people forget Barbara Jean’s death; the song they sing—“You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me”—is almost a hymn to apathy. Yet the scene is not played as angry social criticism. The faces in the crowd are not hard, ugly, soulless faces; these are simply bewildered people who want to shut out disaster. The camera focuses on the faces of children, sitting on their fathers’ shoulders, clapping their hands and singing along with Albuquerque; we feel helplessly moved by the spectacle of life going on in defiance of catastrophe. Altman refuses to score easy points; he understands the cruelty of the mob and the terrible isolation of Barbara Jean, but he also understands ordinary people’s need to deny death and keep the music going. In the end Altman is bitter but accepting, clear-eyed but compassionate; his double-edged vision of personal tragedy juxtaposed with social renewal represents the maturity of the film at its best.

Altman is a complex case. His extraordinary talent is visible all through Nashville, along with the failures of intelligence that mar even his best work. This time, at least, one’s reservations are finally overwhelmed by the depth of feeling in the film. If only Altman could find a writer to provide the intellectual rigor that his films lack, there is no limit to what he might achieve. Since Altman is already fifty, that hope of intellectual development is probably too much to expect. His work will no doubt continue to be irritatingly uneven. But regardless of what he accomplishes from now on, Nashville will stand as a major work by a gifted, irascible artist.

Stephen Farber, the well-known film critic, writes frequently for the New York Times and has contributed to many journals.